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PhD Doctor of Philosophy candidate

animal behavior, comparative cognition, animal communication and language evolution, animal social behavior, ecology and evolutionary biology, scientific communication and scientific illustration
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Project ideas

Project ideas are meant to help inspire student thinking about their own project. Students are in the driver seat of their research and are free to use any or none of the ideas shared by their mentors.

The Difficulties of Definitions in Comparative Research

One of the biggest challenges that researchers of animal behavior and cognition face, especially when we try to make comparisons between species (including between humans and other species), is how to operationalize the concepts we are attempting to study. What is friendship, language, personality, or teaching? Things that are initially easy to point to become challenges to rigorously define, let alone investigate in other species where we can do nothing more than look at external behaviors to make inferences about internal mechanisms and experiences. Many of these concepts were defined by and for humans with deep histories in philosophy and psychology, making it challenging to fairly assess their evolutionary origins in other species. The challenge is made greater when all researchers are trained to avoid anthropomorphism, projecting human experiences onto other species. Projects can tackle a range of topics at the intersection of human and animal behavior and cognition, especially experiences or topics which have historically been assumed to be unique to humans. Students will learn how to critically engage with these topics, including reading and analyzing primary literature, assessing how definitions have hindered comparative research, and exploring how to create balanced hypotheses that would enable more rigorous study of these topics. Final projects could take the form of scientific research papers or articles for communication to broader audiences.

The Subtle Art of Observation in Animal Behavior Research

When watching another species go about their daily lives, it is easy to attempt and narrate what their underlying motivation is. Far more difficult is to separate ourselves from our preconceived biases and experiences, those which might make us view their actions as overtly human (anthropomorphism) and those which we hesitate to attribute because of their perceived complexity (anthropocentrism). Forming hypotheses about what animals are actually doing requires extensive knowledge of an animal's natural history, as well as a clear sense of what assumptions we carry into our observations and how they might color our expectations of what is occurring and what is possible. Excellent animal behavior is conducted by watching, listening, and letting the story unfold. Students will learn about how subtle biases have shaped how we view animal behavior and have become woven into some of the principles taught in ecology and evolutionary biology. We will also discuss how careful observational studies have managed to unravel incredible complexity and brought into question many assumptions once held in the field. Final projects could include students taking on their own observational research project, writing a scientific research on a topic that has been influenced by human biases, or writing a science communication piece for a more general audience.